Making heat ‘cool’

Professor Jim Skea CBE EI President

Professor Jim Skea CBE
EI President

Energy decision-making is widely varied. There are mega-decisions about nuclear reactors, gigawatt-scale offshore wind farms and interconnectors that criss-cross the North Sea. Then there are the literally millions of decisions, each modest in itself, which collectively shape energy needs and markets. Policymakers and headline writers love the big stuff. Nevertheless, it is the more humble things which will shape out the energy future and which really challenge policymakers.

“Heat” has become a catch-all term to describe all forms of energy use that are not electricity and not transport – and that’s a very large share of energy demand. There is a tendency to describe heat as a “sector”. Winston Churchill once famously said that India was no more a country than the equator was. Well India is certainly a country now but, in my view, heat is no more a sector than a kettle of boiling water is. And talking about heat markets is also bizarre. There may be some district heating schemes where heat is priced and traded but, for the moment, heat largely stays within the premises where it is generated and used.

It is also odd that the energy labelled “heat” in commercial buildings is more often used to keep us cool. Hence, the not entirely facetious title of this blog – we could really do with a catchy term, which covers the energy needed to keep us comfortable, whether it involves nudging temperatures up or down. “Heat” makes it sound as though policy is all DECC’s job. Something round “buildings” or “built environment” would make it clear that other government departments, notably Communities and Local Government who look after building standards have a rather important role to play.  Suggestions welcome!

One of the consequences of regarding heat as a sector on par with real sectors, such as electricity, is the temptation to mimic policy mechanisms that work well where there are functioning markets, c.f. the complexity of the Green Deal. Smaller consumers do not make decisions with the same degree of sophistication as finance officers in major utility companies – and nor should they. If we want to promote energy efficiency and renewable heat then simple, understandable rules and incentives are needed. I was talking to a Swede yesterday who pointed out that Scandinavians value simplicity in all things from furniture design to energy policy. They look with bemusement at the elaborate mechanisms that the UK uses to shape electricity markets and energy consumption patterns.

So where does this rather grumpy rant take us? First, I think we need a holistic approach to keeping people comfortable in indoor environments. It is basically about minimising energy use and maximising inputs from environmentally sustainable energy sources. Second, a joined-up vision of where we are going would help. Top-down views of UK low carbon energy futures suggest a big role for heat pumps for example – but it is fair to say many energy professionals remain sceptical.  Every time an old boiler is replaced by a modern combi boiler we lose the hot water tank – the cheapest form of energy storage for buildings – that would be needed to get heat pumps installed. Are we locking ourselves out of a low carbon future in the longer-term for more incremental gains in the short term? Finally, we need rules and incentives that match the needs of households and businesses and the way they make decisions. When DECC presses control-alt-delete on energy policy after the Spending Review is concluded, let’s hope “heat” is one of the areas that gets the attention it deserves.

The Heat Conference will be held on 25 November in London and is organised by the Association for Decentralised Energy and the Energy Institute.

One thought on “Making heat ‘cool’

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